Smoking USA: Colin Hogg's marijuana roadtrip

Colin Hogg, pot smoker:  "I just feel I'm exposing myself."
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Colin Hogg, pot smoker: "I just feel I'm exposing myself."

Veteran journalist, dad and granddad Colin Hogg has always been upfront about his marijuana use, and never more so than with his latest book. The High Road outlines the roadtrip Hogg took through the United States, stopping where pot was legal to indulge the habit that, in this country, makes him a criminal.

How much weed do you smoke?
How much have you got?

Well, how long would it take you to go through an ounce?
I don't like to quantify it. I smoke a bit more than I should. It comes and goes, but I don't know if I want to quantify it, really. I just try to keep it under control. Some stuff is stronger than others. It's getting stronger here – very, very strong. It's also becoming far too expensive.

On his roadtrip, Hogg visited several American cities where marijuana is legal.
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On his roadtrip, Hogg visited several American cities where marijuana is legal.

Growing up in Invercargill, did you smoke weed?
No, I started when I moved to Auckland. But they do grow it down there now. It's very easy to grow. It's got a very short germination, so you bang it in [the soil] in late August usually and grow it through summer.

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Inadvertently or otherwise, The High Road is a political book. You make the case for marijuana law reform here in New Zealand. Is this the first time you've taken that stance publicly?

Yep. Well, there was a reference to the fact that I smoked weed in my last book, Going South. And years and years and years ago, there was a magazine called Planet, and they did a marijuana issue, and I wrote a piece in that 'fessing up how I lead a normal life, I'm a functioning guy, but I smoke weed.

How does it feel to come out so brazenly in support of something that's illegal here?
I'm nervous. The biggest issue is what I call The Mother Factor. My mother's still alive. She's 91. She liked my last book, but when she got to the bit where I said I smoked weed she threw it across the room. I don't want her to read this book at all. There is a problem when you write the sort of books I write, which is that your family and friends want to be supportive by liking it and reading it, and they're the last people I want to read it. I want to throw it over their heads to the strangers out there. That's mainly what I'm nervous about.

If your mother doesn't like that you smoke weed, how will she react to the photo of you smoking on the cover? 
I don't even really want her to see it.

A billboard Hogg encountered during his roadtrip.
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A billboard Hogg encountered during his roadtrip.

But there is a risk in being pro-marijuana – legally, or to your reputation. Is that part of your nervousness?
No. I just feel I'm exposing myself. In some ways, I just wish everyone would come out about it. I feel I've come out, like I've come out of a closet of some sort. Here I am. I'm not the first person, obviously, but I wish all of those well-known New Zealanders who do imbibe and don't see it as a problem and are frustrated, I wish we would all take a full-page ad in the paper and sign it. I'm not going to name any names, but there is a lot of sympathy for this. Rednecks will be appalled.

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Do you think of the book as a work of activism or advocacy?
Not really. I'm not a politically motivated person. I don't adhere to a particular political party. I'm probably leftof-centre. But I don't want to get involved in advocacy. I'm not going to be joining any discussions about whether it should be legalised or not. I'm saying, it's foolish that our marijuana laws criminalise people. 

I still don't understand why we have mishandled it so badly. The damage has been done over the years. Marijuana's been kept in the dark, and it's just made things worse. I want it to be decriminalised, legalised, brought into the light, and made small – just another part of everyday life. It should be no more than a bottle of sherry on a shelf in our lives. There are health issues as there are health issues with alcohol and all of these sorts of things, but only by bringing it into the light can we deal with that, while wiping out the current criminal involvement and dealing a blow to those gangs. We have a system at the moment that supports gangs, and I really don't like it.

Colin Hogg and his bud, mid-roadtrip.
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Colin Hogg and his bud, mid-roadtrip.

It's so bizarre that we're so stuffy about weed. I think that we're afraid of ourselves, on some level. I think there's something in our psyche. We are slightly nutty. We drink too much. We're wilder people than perhaps we realise. So I do think there is a fear the country will go mad. I can't think of any other reason. When you go to the States, where it's legal, you're not aware of it. You can smell it when you're approaching a shop that sells it, but people aren't staggering around the streets waving big doobies at you.

What was it like to buy weed legally, from a dispensary?
It's so weird, going into a shop and a young lady comes up to you and says: "Would you like to buy some marijuana?" It was really weird. There were long pauses between their questions and my answers because I couldn't get my head around it. They're asking: "Would you like it for recreational use? Is it medicinal?" Then they introduce you to your "budtender" and she asks you what effects you're looking for.

This book has a tinge of "Baby Boomers Breaking Bad." Is that a trope you wanted to avoid or play up?
I felt there was something to be said in that area. Just because you're older, doesn't mean you're not still a little bit wild. It should be part of the fun of getting older – that you can still be wild. We were the wildest generation. We overdid it and we were selfish and stupid in lots of ways, but we do know how to have fun. So I hope I inspire some other Baby Boomers to get a car and hit the road. With a sensible driver.

Hogg and Gordon McBride.
Birgit Krippner

Hogg and Gordon McBride.

You take a road trip in The High Road, as you did in Going South, only that time it was with journalist Gordon McBride. He was too ill to take this trip, and he died while you were writing the book, but he's present as you drive through America.
I was a bit haunted by him. It was such an experience writing Going South, going through it, and being so close to him in the last two years of his life. I'd never been through that before. My dad died, other people died, but I wasn't there every day. I felt it was my duty to be there with him, and I wanted to do it. When he died, he didn't leave me. We had talked about this trip, so I guess I took him with me. I hadn't meant to do that but we had talked about it and he was just in my head. Still is.

He felt differently about marijuana to you.
I think Gordon believed it should be decriminalised, at least. Gordon's a lot more conservative than me. I did a puff with him over the years but it wasn't his thing. I did give him some while he was sick, not as part of some act or anything. He was in a bad way and I thought, anything that helps. I rang him and said: "How'd it work?" And he said: "Worked a treat." But he never smoked it. He was just trying to make me feel better.

You spoke to a High Court judge who thought it was socially irresponsible to write The High Road. Did it ever feel that way?
No. But I've been on the fringe of social responsibility all my life. I spent half my life writing about music some people thought was socially irresponsible. I don't give a stuff. I'm proud of this book. But his comments touched a nerve ending, for sure. I liked him, I could tell he had seen some things. I guess the concern is the age restriction, because in the States everything is R21, and I don't think there's anything here with that rating. So an exception would have to be made. It isn't good for kids.

A sandwich board advertising medical marijuana evaluations.
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A sandwich board advertising medical marijuana evaluations.

If you could rewrite New Zealand's marijuana laws, what would they look like?|
I like the idea of very liberal medicinal system, allied with the right to grow a limited number of plants; have a limited amount of the stuff, and be able to give a limited amount away. Meanwhile buying and selling is restricted, and punched up in terms of retribution for that. I'm not sure we need to build a tourist industry off the back of cannabis, but in the States it's seen as a gold mine. Look at Colorado: $1.3 billion in 2016.

You write about legalisation as if it's an inevitability. Do you think that will be in your lifetime?
| hope so. I think it'll happen quite soon. I think we have a very conservative government at the moment. Bill English is a good bloke – he's from Southland – but he's a very conservative Catholic gentleman with very stern views about things. I do think there's a deathly conservatism across the country that's doing untold damage.

What does your daughter think of the book? 
I'll ask her. Maddy! Are you reading my book?

Maddy: Right now? No, not right now, but I am.

Colin: What do you think? Do you think it's a crazy thing for your father to have done?

Maddy: Oh. Um, not really. Just because that's who you are. I think if you were anyone else it would be odd. But it's not surprising.

Colin Hogg talks about his book with Russell Brown at 3pm today at the Going West Festival, Titirangi, Auckland. See goingwestfest.co.nz.

 - Sunday Magazine

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